What history tells us about building climate coalitions

What history tells us about building climate coalitions

Author Matto Mildenberger examined how politics have shaped decades of climate policy in his new book, "Carbon Captured." He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman for this week's climate solutions segment. 

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Environmental activists of Swiss Klimastreik Schweiz movement hold banners, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in front of the opera house on the Sechselaeutenplatz square in Zurich, April 24, 2020.

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Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters 

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Massive programs of green public investment would be the most cost-effective way both to revive virus-hit economies and strike a decisive blow against climate change, top US and British economists said in a study published last month. 

With co-authors including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz from Columbia University and prominent British climate expert Lord Nicholas Stern, the findings are likely to fuel calls for “green recoveries” gathering momentum around the world.

Related: Amsterdam’s coronavirus recovery plan embraces ‘doughnut economics’ for people and the planet

“The COVID-19 crisis could mark a turning point in progress on climate change,” the authors wrote, adding that much would depend on policy choices made in the next six months.

With major economies drawing up enormous economic packages to cushion the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, many investors, politicians and businesses see a unique opportunity to drive a shift toward a low-carbon future.

But meaningful action on climate change will take a lot of political will.

Author Matto Mildenberger has examined how politics have shaped decades of climate policy in his new book, “Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics.”

Related: Mutual aid groups respond to double threat of coronavirus and climate change

Mildenberger is also a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman for this week’s climate solutions segment. 

Marco Werman: Why is thinking about the politics of climate so important? What lens does it offer that is missed when we focus on the technical challenges of solving climate change? 

Matto Mildenberger: Collectively, countries around the world are not doing what it’s going to take to solve the climate crisis. Too often, we focused on not having the right technologies to solve the problem, or saying those technologies are too expensive, neither of which is really true anymore. We know we need to do it, and it’s cheap and profitable to do it. What matters is the politics of climate change now. 

So, you focused on Norway and Australia in your book. Why those two? And what did you learn about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to building political coalitions to address climate change?

In Norway, we have really early action. They really started having a carbon tax, a carbon price, early in the 1990s; whereas, I think Australia is seeing the most political conflict over climate change than basically anywhere in the world. But here’s what you do learn, if we think about Norway, we think about Australia, and frankly, if we think about the United States: In all these countries, climate change actually disrupts some of the existing political coalitions that are out there.

We have workers on the left who depend on carbon-intensive jobs, and we also have businesses that depend on carbon pollution. And the same is true on the right when we have more business-friendly parties. A lot of the conflict over climate change actually plays out within the left and within the right. It happens within existing political parties and coalitions.​​​

Here in the US though, it does feel really left and right. I mean, the US has politicized climate change probably more than any other country on Earth. With the world’s strongest economic power in that position, isn’t that a huge barrier to action? 

A possible upside of the type of polarization we see in the United States is that when the Democrats are in power, there might be more appetite to undertake the type of disruptive climate reforms that are necessary to really solve this problem at the scale that we need to. It’s still an open question whether slow and steady, incremental progress that works at the margins is that going to be a better strategy, or might there actually be more opportunity in a polarized political system where, once in a while, the pro-climate actors seize control of power and really try and push forward on this issue.​​​​​​

So, we can talk about whether certain climate policies work from a technical perspective, but for talking solutions to climate change, what type of policies are the most politically successful?

For about 20 years now, carbon pricing has been one of the main tools in the climate policy toolkit. The idea of carbon pricing is that you, in some way, make companies and polluters pay for the costs associated with the harm they’re doing by releasing this pollution into the atmosphere. From a political perspective, this is a really, really difficult policy. It makes consumer costs really visible and the benefits of acting — all of the avoided climate catastrophe that’s going to happen in the next 10 or 15 years — is totally hidden.

And so, I actually think that there’s a lot of sense to foreground benefits and try and pass policies that are more like the Green New Deal that really focus on providing economic opportunities to workers in new industries. That’s really going to help generate a coalition that actively wants and desires change. And it’s also going to help split apart workers and businesses who have previously been opposed to climate policies by giving workers in fossil fuel industries new opportunities that will sort of bring them into a pro-climate coalition.

So, what gives you hope for the future when it comes to political solutions to climate change?

If we look at the extraordinary response that’s happened right now to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s helpful to think that the world can come together and sort of take the type of action they’re taking on COVID-19 right now, but applying it to the next big looming crisis. Go back a couple of months to the Democratic primary — presidential candidates who were proposing a $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion climate plan over 10 years were dismissed as fanciful.

And we’ve spent more than that in a couple of weeks under the CARES Act. I think that type of effort and renewed political response to crisis is happening all around the world. And if we can redirect some of those energies to the climate crisis, I think that we have a fighting chance over the 2020s to bring this problem under control.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

In Japan, a 1,000-year-old cheese recipe makes its comeback

In Japan, a 1,000-year-old cheese recipe makes its comeback

In Japan, people are making a long-forgotten cheese called “so.” The 1,000-year-old recipe became popular recently on Japanese social media as people stuck at home have extra time on their hands.

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“So” is a 1,000-year-old Japanese cheese that recently became popular among people stuck at home due to the coronavirus.

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Courtesy of Makiko Itoh

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While many Americans are spending the pandemic perfecting their homemade sourdough bread, lockdowns elsewhere in the world are pushing people’s culinary creativity even further. 

In Japan, people are making a long-forgotten cheese called “so.” The 1,000-year-old recipe became popular recently on Japanese social media as people stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic have extra time on their hands, said Makiko Itoh, author of “The Just Bento Cookbook.” They also have more milk on hand after people pitched in to buy an excess from dairy farmers.

“A lot of food producers, including dairy farmers, have a lot of excess milk because they were supplying the school lunch programs,” she told The World’s host Marco Werman. “So some of them called out saying, ‘Please help us, please consume a bit more milk, especially since you have your children home.’ And that’s what a lot of people did.” 

So tastes like concentrated milk, Itoh said. 

“It’s slightly sweet from the inherent sweetness of the milk, maybe,” she said. “The closest thing that’s not cheese that I would compare it to would be a fudge, except no sugar added.”

To make it, people are slowly cooking milk on low heat until the moisture evaporates from it and forms a mass. Itoh said she recently spent five hours making the cheese, keeping it on a hot plate beside her desk as she worked. 

As for how to eat it? 

“It goes pretty well with salty crackers,” she said. “It really matches well if you drizzle some honey on it.”

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This researcher finds hope in ‘bright spots’ among coral reefs

This researcher finds hope in ‘bright spots’ among coral reefs

Australian social scientist and reef researcher Joshua Cinner looks for “bright spots,” or reefs that are doing better than expected, to glean lessons for building resilience in the world's reefs, which are suffering from bleaching events.

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Corals grow in the shallow waters around a small island in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. 

 

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Tane Sinclair-Taylor 

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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — one of the natural wonders of the world — is experiencing its third major summer bleaching event in the last five years. New aerial surveys show more than half of the reef system has lost some of its vibrant colors.

Bleaching is caused partly by warming oceans and climate change and can eventually kill a coral reef. This year, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology recorded the highest ocean surface temperatures around the reefs since measurements started in 1900.

Australian social scientist and reef researcher Joshua Cinner is a research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University Townsville. Cinner looks for “bright spots,” or reefs that are doing better than expected, to glean lessons for the rest of the world.

For this week’s installment of The Big Fix, the World’s climate solutions segment, Cinner speaks to host Marco Werman about solutions for the world’s reefs.  

Related: What can COVID-19 teach us about the world’s climate crisis?

Marco Werman: How do human activities impact the world’s coral reefs? 

Joshua Cinner: Climate change is only one of the drivers of change on coral reefs. Even if we solved climate change tomorrow, many of the world’s coral reefs would still be overfished and suffering from pollution. And so, we need to be thinking about how we can build resilience in coral reefs themselves, but also in the coastal communities whose livelihoods depend on the beauty and bounty of coral reefs.

What attributes make some coral reefs fare better than others? And what can we learn from those reefs that might help sustain other reefs? 

That actually speaks directly to a study I did a couple of years ago. We conducted over 6,000 reef surveys across 46 countries and looked for places that for all intents and purposes should have been degraded, but weren’t, and we called those our “bright spots.” Bright spots aren’t necessarily pristine reefs, but rather reefs that are doing better than they should be, given the pressures that they face. They’re reefs that are kind of punching above their weight. 

We found that bright spots were associated with having high levels of dependence on fishing. This seems kind of counterintuitive, but decades of research into common property institutions found that where people’s livelihoods depend on resources, they’re willing to develop and invest in creative solutions to environmental problems. We also found strong local traditions with the sea and high levels of participation in management by the local communities. 

I would guess you spend a good amount of time in reefs. Remind us of the variety of colors we should see among living coral species and how that contrasts with reefs that are bleached out. 

When you dive on an intact reef system, the colors are extraordinary. I mean, the color palette some of these individual fish have, you know, they seem like a Picasso painting. There’s this large mosaic of gorgeous textures with tons of fish swimming everywhere.

Now, if you contrast that, typically degraded reefs get taken over by algae rather than this mosaic of colors and textures. You see a kind of brown or green algal mat. The structural complexity, which provides home to coral reef fish, that breaks down so the texture of it becomes much flatter. It’s one of the sadder things I’ve seen, and unfortunately, that’s a story that’s being repeated throughout the world.

You have a new study out today in the journal Science looking at reef management in 41 different countries. What did you learn in that study about what works and what doesn’t in terms of how people manage the health of coral? 

Our study of nearly 1,800 tropical coral reefs identified the reefs that “have it all.” They were like the Hollywood A-listers of the coral reef world. And in short, we wanted to find out how local management efforts such as no-fishing marine reserves could help reefs get on the A-list. 

I think there’s two important results from our study. The first is that A-listers are rare, but geographically widespread. The second important result is: location, location, location. Local management efforts can help core reefs sustain multiple goals, but only if they’re placed in the right location. We found that marine reserves can make the biggest difference in locations with low human pressure. However, local management doesn’t make much of a difference where human pressure is most extreme. So, I think these results are important to help determine how managers can maximize certain conservation goals and where they might be wasting their time. 

I know that as you move forward, you’re auditing all your previous work, looking for what you call “exceptional responders.” What does that mean? 

We’re taking a page from medicine. In oncology, there’s a small minority of patients that have remarkable responses to drug therapy, and these are called the “exceptional responders.” Well, we’re planning to do something analogous with coral reefs to find out which reefs are recovering remarkably, and which are doing worse, and why?

Three weeks ago, one of your colleagues, Terry Hughes, tweeted that bearing witness to the coral bleaching, it made him feel like “an art lover wandering through the Louvre as it burns to the ground.” How does focusing on solutions help you cope personally as the metaphoric museum burns to the ground? 

It’s kind of in my veins. I’ve always been drawn to looking for solutions to hard environmental problems. But I also think that finding solutions is much more intellectually interesting than simply pointing out problems. As a social scientist, I think that many of the solutions to environmental problems are decidedly social in nature, and issues such as getting people to cooperate and act collectively are intellectually exciting and very challenging. That’s kind of what keeps me going.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.